What lengths would you go to ensure that your loved ones are safe — or to ensure that they never find out the truth about you?
Parental paranoia is a robust presence in the world of psychological thrillers and horror movies — whether it’s the fear that our loved ones aren’t who they say they are (“The Shining”), the loss of a sense of control and privacy (“Rosemary’s Baby”) or the inability to get past shared family trauma (“Babadook,” “Goodnight Mommy”).
It’s also one of the themes in “Run,” Hulu’s new suspense thriller about a homeschooled teenage girl named Chloe (newcomer Kiera Allen), who slowly begins to peel back the layers of her relationship with her overprotective mother (Sarah Paulson).
The movie goes beyond simply helicopter parenting: Chloe is a disabled teen who uses a wheelchair and has asthma and diabetes. She adheres to a strict diet and her inhaler is (almost) never too far. She’s also clearly ready for college, but there’s something strange about the way her mom behaves around her, even as Chloe prepares to leave. Paulson is convincing as Diane, a controlling mother who keeps her daughter on a tight leash, and keeps a tight lid on secrets of her own.
“Run,” which came out Friday on Hulu after its initial release was canceled due to the pandemic, has all the makings of a suspenseful thriller — mind games, plot twists, obsession and mystery (not to mention some serious gaslighting by a loved one). It’s directed by Aneesh Chaganty, the mastermind behind “Searching,” the 2018 computer-screen thriller about a father looking for his missing daughter.
But there’s one thing that makes “Run” different from its counterparts: Allen is disabled and uses a wheelchair in real life, making “Run” the first studio thriller to star a wheelchair user since “The Sign of the Ram” was released in 1948. “Run” pivots away from a longtime pattern of thriller and horror tropes in which people with disabilities are often portrayed as being broken — and are thus either weak and pitiful, or violent and evil. Chloe is none of these things. She’s a science and technology whiz, she enjoys watching movies and sneaking chocolate, and she’s wholly independent. She’s both disabled and strong-willed, a hero in her own right. It’s a breath of fresh air after decades of disabled people either getting murdered or being murderers.
Putting aside the authentic casting (something Hollywood is only just beginning to understand and improve upon), “Run” is a 90-minute, edge-of-your-seat thriller that holds up a magnifying glass to parent-child relationships and leaves us, like Chloe, questioning everything.
In this interview with HuffPost, Allen and Chaganty talk about using pity as a weapon, the dramatic backstory about the final changes they made to “Run,” and why disability representation in the entertainment industry isn’t so radical after all.
(Editor’s note: About halfway through, this interview contains a major spoiler.)
Kiera, you’ve mentioned before that you have a theater background and that “Run” is your first time as a movie’s main character. Did you expect your first major film would be a thriller? Is that a genre you’d always wanted to do, or did you love the script so much and it just happened to be a thriller and you ran with it (no pun intended)?
Kiera Allen: There is so much I didn’t expect coming into this. I didn’t expect that in my first feature film ever, I would be playing the lead role and working with such an incredible team. There is no part of this that I was like, “Yeah, this seems about right. This is what I was expecting.” It was all a shock. In terms of the genre, I think Aneesh’s work transcends genre in so many ways. It is a thriller, but he’s drawing on so many genres and he knows so much about film. It’s really incredible. Being on set with him, he would just be referencing five movies in a sentence that I had never heard of. So I think in terms of genre and influence, he can certainly speak to that a lot better than I can. He has a brilliant mind.
Aneesh Chaganty: Oh, I love this. I love this interview. This is great. All of your questions, direct to Kiera.
Allen: [laughs] I mean, Aneesh is amazing. I watched “Searching” right after my first in-person audition. I don’t know if you remember this, Aneesh, but I drove straight from my first in-person audition — the first time I ever met Aneesh — to the movie theater because “Searching” was coming out that weekend I was in LA. I came into the lobby and I heard this voice from across the lobby say, “Hey, I know you!” And it was Aneesh, in the movie theater! They were doing a Q&A on “Searching.” And so, as surprising and unexpected as it all felt, it also felt very meant-to-be in a lot of ways from the very beginning.
To get back on track to what I was talking about, seeing “Searching,” it’s a thriller. It’s also very much a family drama. I mean, I wept in the theater watching that movie. It was so moving. It really tugs at the heartstrings. It really connects to the primal feelings about family, about what would you do for your family. A lot of the themes continue into “Run.” I was just so engrossed by the script, even though I’m such a huge scaredy cat. I was never thinking in terms of, “This is my genre, this is not my genre.” I thought, “This is such a compelling story, this is such a rich character. I will do anything to get this part.”
There’s been a lot of buzz around the importance of casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters, and “Run” has received a lot of praise for that. Aneesh, what role or responsibility do you think filmmakers have in making sure that their movies are inclusive, both in terms of casting but also in accurately depicting a community, especially when there’s a history in Hollywood of not being so inclusive?
Chaganty: It’s a duty or responsibility that is very personal to whoever’s the one making the film. After having made “Searching” for the reasons that we did, like — we never cast a Korean American family in that movie thinking that it was a big deal. The point was that it wasn’t a big deal, you know? — Having coming out of that and just seeing how important it was for other people what we had made, like, it was not a thing for us. How important it became, we were like, OK, this is something we should always be doing. It’s like sliding a card into a deck, in the sense that we could always be pushing forward for some person, some people who don’t get to traditionally be in major movies, and essentially giving them a movie that they’ll always be able to have in the future. Because, ultimately, this whole industry is based off of, like, “That actor was in that thing, so we gotta cast that person.”
For us, the ability to cast Kiera was the biggest sort of success on our end. But it was very important that we get to do this. I mean, it was a no-brainer on our end. We know it can’t hurt. To say a disabled character has to be played by a disabled actor, it’s a very non-crazy thought that is only weird because it doesn’t happen. But the whole point of it here is, OK, we brought someone into the world, into Hollywood in that sense. Now we get to vouch how easy it was, or we get to vouch how great she is, all these things. And now hopefully [future filmmakers] will have an easier time. It was just something we’d planned on doing. It’s a very, very simple mindset of just slipping a card into a deck. Hopefully if we keep that going, we’ll be a whole diverse coalition making movies.
One of the things I appreciated most about “Run” was how much agency Chloe had as a character. Often, I feel like disabled characters are reduced to a trope of either inspiration or pity, and neither of those applies to Chloe. She’s a complex, well-rounded person who is gutsy and intelligent and she saves herself from someone who is supposed to be trustworthy but is actually abusive. Was Chloe’s character a big part of why you took on the project, Kiera?
Allen: Absolutely. Oh my God, I’ve got chills because you just took the words right out of my mind. Everything you just said about this character; that she has agency, that she’s dimensional and that she saves herself and that she’s not a character to advance someone else’s story or to make someone else feel something about themselves, or to make us sympathize with another character — which is something that you often see with disabled characters, they’re there to inform someone else’s arc. That is not this character. She has a crazy, crazy journey that she goes on where she’s the one propelling the action. The story moves forward because Chloe makes a choice. The story moves forward because Chloe does something. And to play a character that was really active like that and, like you said, so rich and never made out to be one thing — she’s super smart, but she’s also super cool. She’s really sweet, but she’s also really tough.
She just gets to be so many things, and to get to play all those colors across these different scenes, and sometimes even in the same scene, to do that is every actor’s dream. That’s not a character you see come along very often. As a disabled actor, or as an able-bodied actor — as an actor, period; before I became disabled, it’s not like I was seeing roles like this all the time. This is just an unusually meaty, beautiful role to play, which I was really grateful for.
There’s a scene where Chloe asks the people waiting at the pharmacy if she could cut the line, and she knows they’ll let her because she’s disabled. I loved that because it turns a common disability trope on its head. Typically able-bodied people do that because they feel bad for disabled people and underestimate them, and Chloe uses that to her advantage in a way that actually shows just how smart and savvy she is. She breaks that stereotype. For you, as a disabled actor, were there scenes like that that reflect what daily life is like for you as a wheelchair user?
Allen: I loved that scene because it speaks so much to her character. This character is so resourceful, and you see her in all these situations where she just finds tools where you wouldn’t even expect them. If she’s locked in a room, she uses everything she can in that room to make something to get out. She uses everything that she has available to her. And one of the things that she has available to her is this pervasive cultural idea about disability, that disabled people are to be pitied and to be coddled, and that is a weapon in this scene. That is a tool, and I love that she uses it that way.
You can see the people that are in the store, looking at her like, “Oh, this poor girl, she needs so much help. She can’t do it on her own. She needs this special treatment.” And when you know the journey that she’s going on and what she’s done and what she’s overcome in terms of just getting to this line in the pharmacy, it’s a funny moment because it’s like, “Oh, I see what they think she is, and we know she’s not.”
What was the process like in making sure the film got those details right about Chloe in terms of what it’s truly like living with a disability, not from the perspective of an able-bodied person but someone who’s actually disabled, a wheelchair user? What were those conversations like for both of you?
Allen: Honestly, even as we’re having this conversation sitting here, I’m like, man, how did they do that? How did they know? Two non-disabled writers coming into this and have this level of authenticity that’s so true to my lived experience, and to see that in the script was so extraordinary. Aneesh, I don’t know if you remember me sending you an email after you first sent me the script — it was before even my second audition, but I sent you an email and I was like, “Look, no matter what happens with casting, no matter whether I’m right for the role or not, I am so excited to see this film because it is one of the best representations of disability I’ve ever, ever seen, one of the best disabled characters I’ve ever seen put to the page.” So I know they did their work and they did a lot of research and they spoke to a lot of disabled people, people who had expertise in disability issues. I’ll let him speak more to that. There was such a level of authenticity in the script already.
And even beyond that, they really made space for me to share my perspective as well, which I really appreciate. Just having those opportunities to say the small things, like, “Hey, I wouldn’t actually do this like this, I would do it like that. I wouldn’t transfer like that, I would do it like this. If I wanted someone to push me, I would ask them first. I wouldn’t want someone to come behind me and push me without saying something first.” And conversations like that that we had, conversations that we had during pre-production as well. I think the things that ended up changing were so small but were details that were important to me. But the really important thing for me was being on a set where I felt like my voice was heard, my perspective was valued, and they were never going to do anything that was uncomfortable or untrue to my experience as a disabled person.
Chaganty: It’s so funny. If you’d asked me that question, I would’ve said Kiera was how we did it. I mean, we just asked a lot of people. There’s a concept of ableism which I was not familiar with that I got really educated on throughout the process of writing this movie. I spoke to a disability studies professor at Brown, and I had her read the script multiple times, and I would just talk to her about what it’s saying, how she feels like this is going to add to or detract from a conversation that could happen out in the world.
One of the biggest things we changed: Originally, Kiera’s character, Chloe, is walking at the end of the film and then poisons her mom. And one of the first things that Sarah Skeels, the professor at Brown, said to me that was like — without saying it, she taught me that that was reinforcing this concept of ableism, because it was suggesting that her arc as a character was complete because of her ability, as opposed to her decision with her mom and how she feels. And so immediately we changed that to, she’s using a wheelchair still at the end of the movie, and she’s still a complete character based on her actions and how she feels about her mom.
To me, the biggest macro shift in the whole story is to just basically be like, our goal is not to suggest her character arc is complete because of her ability or disability. Her character arc is complete because she is a woman who is trapped and gains the freedom and then in doing that ends up manifesting elements of her own mother into her own behavior at the end of the film. That to us is one of those things that really freed us from this trap.
Again, like Kiera said, we asked all the time, tiny things here and there about what she would do, wouldn’t do. I totally forgot about the “asking when someone just grabs the wheelchair” thing. I think she did have a major, major role in all of this, literally designed the room in a lot of ways, what posters would be up. ... I don’t know. Kiera’s great.
Something that really struck me was how her mom has been poisoning her for her entire life, which caused her to become disabled. But then I love that moment near the end where Chloe says she’s been going through physical therapy but that either way, whether she’s more or less disabled, she’s happy. That was such a powerful moment because it showed that it’s not her being disabled that’s a tragedy, it’s that her mom abused her and the circumstances that caused her to become disabled, that’s the tragedy. Kiera, when you read the script and you discovered the reveal, what was going through your mind? And Aneesh, how did that angle come about?
Chaganty: This is actually a dramatic backstory. We were in the last day of our sound mix and those lines were not in the movie. We were locking the movie in that sound mix, and Chloe was saying something different; she was saying how one day, she’ll be at a spot where she can walk. I remember hearing that — it felt like for the first time on the last day of the edit, and I was just like, “Dude, we can’t suggest that. We can’t suggest that anymore.” And I remember looking back at Nat [Natalie Qasabian] and Sev [Ohanian], the producers of the movie, and being like, “We have to change that line.” And they were like, “Whoa, whoa whoa. It’s the last day of the shoot!” And literally over the course of that weekend, after the sound mix had wrapped, I convinced our sound designer that this was a really important issue. I convinced Kiera that it was really important we all work together on this one little line, that one little snippet that you just cited back. Kiera [recorded] this one little line, sent it back to us and the sound designer dropped that line back in. I was looking at it on QuickTime without being in the room, and then it went off into the world.
That’s awesome that you brought that up because it was our last change that we made in the movie, all in the spirit of just making sure that this is something that is an overall step forward.
Allen: I think you even texted the lines to me before we shot — like, I remember having several text conversations back and forth, where you sent me, “This is the line,” and then, “What do you think of that?” And then you let me give my thoughts, and we kind of workshopped these two little lines together for so long because that moment was so important. And yeah, I’m so blown away and so happy it stood out to you in a positive way.
The film depicts so many layers of having a disability, whether it’s being a disabled actor or living with a disability and the nuances that come with all of that. What message about disability do you want audiences to take away from the film after watching it?
Allen: Gosh, I mean, I think everything we just talked about, right? I love your take on everything — the journey the character has, the fact that her disability is not the problem. It’s never represented as the problem. It’s the woman who’s trying to control her. It’s the woman who’s abusing her. It’s the woman who’s enforcing these structures of inaccessibility — that is the villain. And that’s really a parable for this world that we live in. I subscribe to the belief that, as Stella Young said in her amazing TED talk, we are more disabled by the society we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses, it’s the things that are put in place that make the world inaccessible to people with disabilities, and I think that’s really reflected in this.
And so I’m just excited. But I don’t necessarily need everyone to come away from it being like, “Wow, I have a different view of accessibility in this world and the way that the structures of power are enforced to limit people with disabilities!” I don’t need everyone to come away from it with a thesis. I think just seeing it is just something people haven’t seen before. I think seeing this story and enjoying the story and getting on this character’s side and believing in her, I think, is just — it’s not something that people have seen with a disabled protagonist before. So I think people will just see it and feel it, and that’s what I’m excited for.
Chaganty: In 2020, we’re in a different stage of the world. Growing up, you never saw an Asian American onscreen. You never saw a brown person onscreen. You never saw these minorities. Those tiny little appearances and the way we were depicted when we were on camera affect people. And they especially affect young people, because you’re saying, “OK, that person is cute, that person is beautiful, that person is smart” — those tiny little indicators to people watching movies is like, what these people look like and how they are in real life affect generations. It affects your worldview. Like Kiera said, just seeing somebody who is disabled, who is smarter than everybody, wittier than everybody, cleverer than everybody, and in her own way, in some ways eviler. Again, it turns people into people and not caricatures.
From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s just very important for us to show that when you decide to cast somebody with a disability, [there are fears that] “OK, it’s more expensive, it’s [harder]” and just being like, “Hey it’s fine, it’s all cool. We’re just making a normal movie.” To be able to set some sort of precedent in that way to convince the next filmmakers to say, “Hey, this is totally worth it,” and not this existential fear of, “Oh, it’s going to be so much harder to make a movie if we actually cast someone who’s actually disabled in real life.” To get over that block would be a huge victory if this movie was able to help with that.
Allen: I want to go back to something [Aneesh] said a little while ago. When you see things in movies and TV, they teach you: This is what a smart person looks like, this is what an attractive person looks like, this is what a cool person looks like. Like what happens when you don’t see any disabled people? What message is that sending when you don’t see anyone like that? The message that you get is that person doesn’t exist. We’re creating a world for people watching these movies, watching TV shows where disabled people don’t even factor into the human experience. And that’s bad. I’m tearing up a little bit, because I’ve been thinking about how powerful this movie is in that way. This character has the most intense, most gorgeous, fullest human experience throughout this story. And it’s so cathartic to do that and to see that because we’ve been taught that disabled people don’t even belong in the narrative of the human experience.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
“Run” is available to watch on Hulu.